COMMENT: From Robson to Matic - Manchester United in four midfield acts
From the sublime to the superfluous.
In the eighties, Manchester United were Bryan Robson. Swashbuckling, compelling, irrepressible on their day...and yet forever on the verge of breaking to bits. At their best, they could better anyone - be it Dalglish's Liverpool or Maradona's Barcelona. And yet ultimately the biggest prize alluded them. Sporadic cup glory was the best they could hope for, as attempts to fashion a title charge resulted in cracked dreams and balsa wood splinters. It was great fun, but constantly dislocated.
In the nineties, United were Roy Keane. Driven, dominant and positively hateful of anything sub-excellence. The Corkonian was Fergie's on-field conduit, with the same demented will to win and cruel joy in watching opponents cower. If you came to play, you were outplayed. If you came to fight, you went home as battered bones in a bag of skin. And woe betide any official who dared to implement the rules in favour of the opposition, for they'd feel the full force of frothing rage. Anything to win, never beaten.
In the mid-noughties, Michael Carrick became the quintessence of the team. Smoothly refined, technically gifted, and always in control. The more imposing attributes of his predecessors were replaced with a quiet assuredness that was born of un-showy efficiency rather than any form of meekness. Indeed, so low-key could successful serenity be that there was a tendency to take it for granted. United may not have always thrilled with cavalier seat-of-their-pants drama, but there was virtue in unruffled regal supremacy.
Now, under Jose Mourinho, United are symbolised by the midfield efforts of Pau...Nemanja Matic. Everything is slightly more laboured than it needs to be, as rudimentary tests - once so easily and contemptuously dispatched - become an indecent toil. It is all so desperately slow, second-guessed and deliberate. Everything and everyone is passing them by in a haze of obsolescence. The real tragedy is not lack of effort but a growing loss of relevance. What was once outstanding is now outdated, outmoded and effectively out to pasture.